I am not a “self-advocate”. I am an Autistic activist.
Since I started advocating as a member of the Autistic community (a collective group of Autistic, pro-neurodiversity activists who fight for acceptance of Autistic people, advocate for our civil rights, and combat narratives that view us as tragic diseases), I was branded a “self-advocate”.
Now, some people may find this term appealing or empowering. I don’t. In fact, I truly despise it: a term used to minimize our efforts and silence us. I hope that someday this term gets phased out of existence.
In disability advocacy, a “self-advocate” is someone who happens to advocate for themselves. Now, for those who value intersectionality, you may already start to see a problem with this. Why is the term “self-advocate” applied only to disabled and neurodivergent people?
How come people of colour who fight for racial justice aren’t labeled “self-advocates”? How come LGBT+ activists are not called “self-advocates”? How come most activists are simply referred to as such, rather than “self-advocates”?
We recognize these people as brave individuals fighting for their community, sometimes putting their safety on the line. It comes as no surprise to the layperson to see a member a marginalized group standing up for their demographic as an activist. Most oppressed groups throughout history have been known to come together as a community to fight for their rights. So why are only disabled/neurodivergent activists called “self-advocates”?
The answer is simple, but also disturbing: the term “self-advocate” is used to deny us agency. Autistics are often not seen as full human beings. We are assumed to be incompetent and incapable of fighting for ourselves. It is assumed that unlike other marginalized communities, we cannot come together and fight alongside one another. When someone refers to me or any Autistic individual as a “self-advocate”, what I hear is “I am genuinely surprised to see an Autistic person voicing their opinion on Autistic issues”. People often assume that Autistic activists are rare, or don’t have much to say about how we are treated. An assumption that is quite obviously false, and perpetuated with labels like “self-advocate” – used ultimately as a silencing tactic.
“Self-advocate” is also fundamentally wrong in another way: it assumes that we must advocate only for ourselves. One of the most common phrases used to silence Autistic activists is, “you don’t speak for all Autistics”. While it is true that we cannot speak for every Autistic person, this also implies that we are incapable of standing up for our community. And why should we only be permitted to speak in ways that non-autistic people approve of? Why should everything we say be carefully coded as applying only to us? Why can’t we fight for the fair treatment of everyone in our community, the same way members of other marginalized groups do?
When other disenfranchised activists fight for their community, they are just seen as activists. They want justice for everyone in their group, not just themselves. Thus, self-advocate is inaccurate to describe Autistic people like myself, who fight to make sure that no Autistic is ever mistreated or oppressed. We fight for the liberation and empowerment of all who share our neurology.
There are many “controversies” over Allistic (non-autistic) parents of Autistic children clashing with those they consider “self-advocates”. These parents will often point fingers at us for wanting to “speak for everyone in our community”, and cite it as a reason that “self-advocates” should not take the center stage. Ironically enough, they are the ones who try to speak over us.
It is true that nobody of any demographic can speak for every single individual. That is virtually impossible. However, Autistic people, like members of other communities, CAN and DO stand up and fight for each other. We are perfectly capable of creating our own movement, one centered around Autistic voices.
So, to my fellow esteemed Autistic activists, it’s time to drop this demeaning and useless term. Stop calling yourself a self-advocate, and start referring to yourself as an Autistic activist.